Sunday, December 12, 2021

Thème agrégation/M2 Pfister - suggested translation

     Note that this translation will only remain on the blog for a couple of weeks.

If you are a visitor to this blog and you want to see the original passage we were translating from, you will find it here  http://www.jcmullen.fr/0921themebooklet.pdf 

 On that particular day, unusually[1], she had not come out in the middle of the gaggle[2] of other schoolgirls. She had been held up[3] by a fellow pupil[4] who wanted to copy out[5] her notes on their last history[6] lesson,[7] which had been on the Chaco War. She was[8] always careful to take neat and detailed notes in history lessons, knowing how much her father set store by this particular subject. Did he not[9] pride himself on[10] being an expert in military history? She and the other girl had argued.[11] She had been annoyed by her classmate’s[12] gloating patriotic  comments. She had not been able to stand the scorn shown for the Bolivians who, if the girl was to be believed,[13] were[14] nothing but a bunch of degenerate Indians.[15] (…). She did not really know why, but she had wanted to bring the other girl down a peg or two.[16] It might have been[17] because she had detected in her comments an echo of the things she had so often heard at the family dinner table, where she had to[18] stay silent unless asked a direct question. So she had taken her revenge: in a rather awkward[19] way, she could see that.[20]

As time was moving on, they had brought their argument to a close and had decided to catch up with the others. By the time they had passed beneath the archway and stepped out onto the pavement, the street was almost empty. The pupils had scattered, heady with the first scent of freedom. It was then that she had noticed the elderly[21] woman, dressed all in black, in the fashion of poor women from the countryside. The woman was on the lookout for somebody. She must have been a servant come to meet one of the pupils.  When she saw them come out, she had smiled, as if relieved.

“Do you know her?” she had asked her companion.

Her classmate had looked at the old woman and shaken her head.[22]

“She’s often there, you know,” she had added, “she always stands in the same place, underneath the big Palo Borracho tree. She’s always on her own, to one side. She watches us come out as if she were waiting for somebody and then she leaves. It’s strange that she should have stayed today.”

Thierry Pfister,  Le pont de l’Âme (2009)


[1] Be careful, neither structures with « she used to » nor structures with « she was used to » are possible here. NB “Contrary to” is almost always used to contrast reality with impressions. “Contrary to popular muyth, English food is the best in the world”, “Contrary to what had been supposed, Mr. Simpson had a good knowledge of French literature”. That is to say “contrary to” is not generally used to compare two realities. A detailed look at “contrary to” in the British National Corpus is worthwhile. It can be compared to “in contrast to” and “in contrast with”. Possible translations include “unlike most days” “in contrast with most days”.

[2] « Bunch » is rather too slangy. « Throng » no doubt sounds like they are more numerous than a « grappe ». « cluster » is not bad.

[3] « Delayed » is possible.

[4] Or « a classmate ». They are too young to be students. A good time to revise the short and probably closed vocabulary set of mates : classmate, workmate, shipmate, playmate, roommate, bunkmate, flatmate, soulmate, cellmate, teammate, housemate, schoolmate

[5] Phrasal verbs ending with « out »  often (but not alwaysà give an idea of completeness. « To help you memorize, you should write out the poem several times ». « Did you manage to sort the problem out ? ». « I will print out my dissertation tomorrow ». « The concert tickets may be sold out ».

[6] No capital letter needed for school subjects, except for languages.

[7] A couple of students tried ‘latest’. This seems logical, but sounds strange. ‘Latest’ usually  means most recent. It is often used to discuss news. For instance:–   “Here is the latest news from China.” ‘Last’ of course can mean the final element in a finished series. (Shakespeare’s last play) However we also do use ‘last’ to speak about time (last month, last week, last birthday) and ‘last’ is what is needed here.


[8] Most of the verbs in French are in the plusqueparfait, and it is clear we are being given a background description of the events leading up to some major new situation. There are three verbs here which are in the present in French. I think the best translation into English is the preterite, since they seem to me to describe actions in a period which is now over, rather than actions which continue right up to the present day. As you know the

[9] Naturally, no contraction.

[10] I liked « did he not brag about being »

[11] This translation makes sure there is no ambiguity. Several students tried « she had argued with her », which is clumsy.

[12] Not « comrade » which is reserved for use among communists, trade unionists etc.

[13] « To hear her » is also good.

[14] A translation with « would » is a very serious mistake here.

[15] My impression is that, in a South American context, no other word is possible here.

[16] Or « to shut her up », or « cut her down to size ».

[17] It would be a pity not to use a modal. « May have been » is slightly different but possible too.

[18] Someone tried « she was not to speak ». This is not correct, because it suggests a formally planned (non-) activity, rather than a forbidden activity. « The president of the university is to meet Prince Charles when he is in Normandy next month. They are not to  have dinner together, but will share coffee and biscuits in the afternoon. » « She was supposed to » is not bad at all. « She was meant to » is fine, but not quite as good.

[19] « Muddled » is good.

[20] « She admitted » was good.

[21]  This is more polite than « old ».

[22] Note that « to shake one’s head » is equivalent to « dire non de la tête ». No addition (like « negatively » is needed.

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